Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Who’s in the Audience?

Anyone’s who’s ever performed under stage lights knows: the audience is a group of mostly figures, their features indistinct, if visible at all.  & yet as performing artists, we thrive on this group of unseen people—why?  Energy: although we can’t see the audience except for a few faces in the front rows, we can feel them.  Audiences give something to the performer: energy, vitality, inspiration.  Almost without exception, an integral part of a good performance is a good audience.

How does this idea of audience energy pertain to writers?  After all, theater, music & dance are “performing arts”—writing poetry & fiction—the actual creative acts—this is almost always done in isolation—we don’t invite our friends to watch us while we type out words!

But for me, audience has always been a crucial part of the writing process.  However, for the longest time, I focused exclusively on those few faces I could see past the stage lights, not on the figures beyond them who were faceless shapes.  Yes, I’ve always written with an audience in mind, but an audience made up of a discrete number of people—a half dozen, perhaps a dozen at most.  & indeed, I received energy, vitality & inspiration from that audience.

How is this relevant to publishing in general & to the process of publishing The Spring Ghazals in particular?  The Spring Ghazals actually began with a series of poems addressed to an old friend—I say “friend,” because I don’t know a word to better define what has been a complex & perhaps unique relationship.  In any case, the poems that now appear in the book as the “Kitchen Poems” section began as a direct address to her, tho they were shared with a handful of other people as well—other distinct faces in the audience. 

This was before Robert Frost’s Banjo.  With one exception, a poem which this friend posted on her blog—a once popular site that’s no longer extant as she’s moved on to different things—the “Kitchen Poems” had a very small audience.

I’ve generally made myself comfortable with that—I was content circulating poems in a circle of other writers & creative people while taking an MFA—this included publishing in journals run by friends & acquaintances; I was content giving readings & publishing in a punk rock ‘zine while in San Francisco.  I used to say I had a very 16th century view of publishing—that I wrote poems for an intimate circle—those few recognizable faces in the first rows.

But at a certain point, I realized that if I were to keep writing now, in my middle-aged return to poetry, I needed a larger sense of audience.  First there was the Robert Frost Banjo blog—the prose poems in the “Cloudland” section of the book were written for the blog long before I even knew a book was in the offing.  Then the “Ghazals” themselves were written for the blog in the spring of 2009, & as the sequence grew, I began to see a “book” taking shape.

But all the time I was posting these poems on a blog with a growing readership, to be read & commented on by people I scarcely knew, I was also writing the poems for the same intimate circle as always; & I was writing them as much for my old friend as ever, tho at that point we were no longer in touch….

Here’s the fact of the matter: at a certain point I realized that it’s necessary to draw energy & inspiration from the audience as a whole, not just from those few faces you can see.  If what we’re giving in art is a mode of communication, & this seems true whether we’re using words or notes on a guitar or dance gestures or brush strokes, then at some point we have to decide whether we really want to circumscribe that communication.  If I’m onstage playing music & I decide to somehow restrict my communication to the few people I can actually see in the front row, then I won’t give a good performance—it’s all about “giving” & “receiving.”  But yes, I do focus on a few faces I recognize, but I let them take me to the rest of the audience—the indistinct figures in the further rows.

In the writing game, we call that publishing.

On Thursday: “What Have You Published?”

Photo of the Alice in Wonder Band during an ovation at the Alpine Playhouse by Tim Hohs


  1. What a lovely post, John! Readers, viewers, listeners--they're all part of the process. I appreciate your discussion of how the internet facilitates and complicates your sense of audience. I'm sure I speak for others when I say, you speak for us all!

  2. Hi Audrey: Thanks! So glad you enjoyed this one.

  3. Have you seen the film Topsy Turvy? When asked if he planned to watch The Mikado with the audience, W S Gilbert retorts, "Consort with the foe? Never!"

  4. Hi K: I haven't seen it, but that's a most interesting comment & perspective. Poets are by definition amateurs, at least in this country--even those holding down 6 figure tenured professorships are in some sense "amateurs" as poets. I think Gilbert's remark makes perfect sense for a professional theater man. Quite interesting contrast.


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